It wasn’t until I broke down in front of my sister that it occurred to me to use the word ‘haunted’. When I tried to explain what was happening to me, finally articulating the weeks of dread and utter dislocation, I found that no other word would come. Haunted. There’s still a part of me that scoffs and glowers at this, to use the language of folklore; it seems to compress what I’d experienced into a simple banality, a prisoner of language.
I paid cash upfront for the house in West Toluca Lake. Something about the 1930′s Spanish architecture tucked behind the grove of weeping willows triggered a strong association with my childhood ideal of what it meant to be famous and successful in Los Angeles. It was far more than I needed, and I struggled to fill the extra rooms with bedroom sets and elaborate smoking lounges; more out of an obligation to keep up appearances when guests were over than to satisfy myself. I was happy there, for a short while.
My friends stop visiting a few months after I moved in. Increasingly elaborate excuses were spun, and I soon stopped asking. It only occurs to me now that I was doing the same, finding every reason to stay in the house.
There was such a gentle descent into the insanity of it all, that I hardly felt it happening. The unusually stormy winter hit me hard, and long hours in front of the sun lamp seemed to do little to halt my growing feeling of melancholy and nameless unease. I started sleeping later and I abandoned even the pretense of writing, spending long hours in silence on the back porch, listening to the dry rasping of the dead leaves in the cold breeze.
It was the middle of the night when I first saw him. After a long time of lying motionless in the dark, I slowly pulled myself out of bed from an Ambien fog at the sharp urging of my bladder, and shuffled towards the bathroom.
He was in the hall, standing perfectly still, his back to me. His head was cocked slightly to one side as if he was listening, but he showed no signs of seeing me. My heart leapt and my body locked as I tried to comprehend this intrusion. He was walking away from me now, the soft tread of his feet on the carpet the only sound that punctuated the stillness. Less than three seconds had passed from the moment I saw him, to when he turned a corner and was gone.
When I wrenched control from my frozen limbs, I found the house empty, and the doors still locked. Sleep came slowly that night as I tried to convince myself that what I had seen was a product of my medicated and half asleep mind.
He returned the next night, as I lay in bed. I awoke to the sound of the door opening and my eyes snapped open to complete darkness. There was the soft shuffling of feet, and then with a sickening feeling deep in my core, the sound of bed springs softly creaking, as if he had sat at the foot of the bed. Fear held me in place like a vice. There was a sound from far away, a dusty crackling breath of wind.
My mouth went dry and I croaked a small involuntary rasp as I struggled to extricate myself from the sheets that suddenly clung to me. In that naked moment of helpless animal terror, he vanished, leaving a palpable hole in the darkness.
After that night, I was never alone in that house. At the corner of my eyes I saw slow plodding movement, the lumbering gait of a shadow that evaporated as soon as I turned. Rarely at first, but increasingly, I would see him in full view; walking slowly from room to room, sitting motionless on the patio, standing solemnly and silently in odd corners of the house. He would be gone only moments after I registered his presence, simply ceasing to exist, taking with him the tiny muffled sounds of his movements.
I could not describe him now if I tried. He was not vague or indistinct, but utterly unremarkable in every appearance. I can no longer even recall the image of him, only the idea of it all. Beyond the sight, there was an indescribable quality around him, a lingering fog of unease and dread that slowly suffused the house and clouded my mind.
My friends and my family all swear that during the darkest weeks they called me often, increasingly sick with worry. I remember none of it, just the constant crashing waves of dread and shock that weathered away at my reason.
The moment of clarity came on a clear February night. In a near daze, I stumbled towards the sleep, not wanting to stay awake, not wanting to wake up again in this house. I turned out the light, sat down gingerly on the edge of the bed when the miasma of his presence enveloped me.
He was behind me in the dark.
I pressed my eyes tightly together, and exhaled a slow wheeze, trying to calm my racing heart.
The bed behind me bucked with sudden movement and a raspy cough of air, and I leapt away, flinging the light switch upward. The bed, once immaculately made was in shambles, the sheets strewn on the floor.
Something deep inside me seemed to slowly bend and snap, and I grasped at a fragment of epiphany that slipped through my fingers away into the gloom.
I felt suddenly and sharply awake and lucid, like I hadn’t in months. I held onto my momentary courage close as I approached the front door; stepping over the threshold for the first time in weeks brought a faint wave of dizziness, and then I was in the car trying not to look back. As I pulled the car into the street, I turned to the house, the last time I saw it, its lights ablaze in mimicry of life. He was at the window, his hands clasped at his side, a momentary silhouette that vanished with only the soft sway of the curtains.
I was at a motel within an hour and at my sister’s Studio City apartment the next morning. My throat was raw from not speaking for so many days and I croaked out the story to her, embarrassed at the absurdity of the way it all, but swaddled in a profound relief.
Despite the usefulness of it to describe the events, the word ‘haunted’ soon turns sour in my mouth. It never occurred to me to call the intruder a ‘ghost’. This was… something else. Something I can’t explain with the clubs and spears of language. The phantom impression of a right word, the perfect word, seems always at the tip of my tongue, but it never comes. It wasn’t the intruder. It was the house. There’s something wrong with the house itself.
The house is… broken.
Credited to Josef K.